Fred’s Messy Room and The Problem of Evil

This week, a session on “the problem of evil”. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, why is there evil? I ran it last week in our online classes at (if you have any budding philosophers, give them the code “TPM” and they can try a taster of any of our classes for just £1).

The session is also an example of two important techniques: starting with something relatable from the world of the child, even with a heavy subject; and, on an issue where people are apt to “take sides” from the start rather than thinking through the problem, “step away” to begin with to something that illustrates a similar idea but isn’t fraught with entrenched positions.

First, download the accompanying PowerPoint here.

Stimulus 1: Fred’s Messy Room

Show these statements:
1)    Fred is able to tidy his room, and has plenty of time.
2)    Fred notices when stuff needs tidying.
3)    Fred wants stuff to be tidy.
4)    Fred’s room is a mess.

What comments do they have about them? Do the statements go together? Share the idea of a contradiction. If the first three statements are true, it doesn’t look like the fourth one can be true. But are there ways they can “repair” it, and explain why all four statements are true at the same time? Maybe Fred is lazy, or just hasn’t started yet, or a pig lives in his room that is constantly messing it up faster than he can tidy it. Or perhaps, much as Fred wants stuff to be tidy, there is something he wants more.

Stimulus 2: Mrs Bloggs’s School

Show these statements:
1)    Mrs Bloggs can make anyone in her school do anything she wants.
2)    Mrs Bloggs knows everything that goes on in her school.
3)    Mrs Bloggs wants everyone in her school to behave well.
4)    There is bad behaviour in Mrs Bloggs’s school.

Again, do they fit together or is there a contradiction? Crucially, we’re assuming all these are true – Mrs Bloggs really can make anyone do what she wants – maybe with mind control, like the Demon Headmaster. How can they repair it, so that all can be true? Maybe she could force people to do what she wants, but she wants them to be able to learn from their mistakes and choose to be good. Perhaps if they’re not choosing to be good, they’re not really being good at all.

Stimulus 3: The Problem of Evil
Show the four statements we’ve been building up to:
(1) God is omnipotent (that is, all-powerful).
(2) God is omniscient (that is, all-knowing).
(3) God is omnibenevolent (that is, all-good).
(4) Evil exists.

How can the new contradiction be repaired? As with Mrs Bloggs, one way is to argue that people have free will, and that’s more important to God than the evil it permits. But if God is ALL-powerful, he should be able to change people so that what they want and what he wants are the same. And what about natural evils such as earthquakes, diseases, animal suffering?

I found that this way of starting with something relatable, and stepping away from the religious question at first, led to a much richer discussion than when I’ve tackled the issue before, which has usually meant participants dividing “on party lines” and quickly going to, “Well, obviously God doesn’t exist,” or “God must have his reasons.”

This theological puzzle is one of the most long-running and contested issues in philosophy, so there are all sorts of resources out there for exploring it. Take a look at Stephen Law’s “Evil God” challenge. For older students, Tom recommends the film “God on Trial“, in which a group of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz set up a court trial to decide if God is guilty of abandoning them – exploring most of the famous theodicies in the process. It’s excellent for Religious Studies. 

Best wishes,

Jason and Tom

PS: We’ve been enjoying a busy few weeks of INSET and demonstration lessons in schools. “I’ve never seen P4C presented in such a practical, accessible way!” said one teacher yesterday. Looking ahead, there’s still a few slots in early January for those who want to kick-off 2024 with something that’ll motivate and inspire everyone. Get in touch here to find out more!

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